If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve heard how unionization efforts are popping up all over the country, from Starbucks, Amazon, and Apple; to airports, nursing homes, and college campuses. Indeed, in numbers not seen in generations, American workers are fighting for higher wages, better benefits, and, yes, a little more dignity on the job. This week, Abby talks about what all this portends with Mary Kay Henry, president of the nation’s second-largest union, the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU currently represents about 2 million workers, including the custodians profiled in Abby’s documentary about economic inequality, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales.
Mary Kay tells Abby that The SEIU is committed to eliminating the kind of poverty wages that have come to define service work, especially the jobs that predominantly go to women and minorities, jobs like child care and home health assistance. Mary Kay has been at this for a long time. She started organizing in 1980, just around the time former President Ronald Reagan advanced policies that crippled union power. What kept her going during those dark years, Mary Kay says was “the incredible courage of individual people who were willing to risk their jobs, to make things better for themselves, their families, and their coworkers.”
The fight is far from over. Despite some well-publicized victories for labor in recent years, and regardless of talk of how frontline workers were “essential” during the pandemic, Mary Kay tells Abby that corporate America is spending millions on union-busting campaigns, vociferously fighting workers’ efforts to have a place at the bargaining table. These corporate campaigns are unacceptable, she says, and one of her goals is to change the public’s attitude toward the employers who keep unions out. Just like the Me Too Movement made sexual harassment unacceptable, Mary Kay declares: “we want to make it unacceptable to have anti-union behavior.”
International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)
Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and her leadership is rooted in a deep-seated belief that when Black, brown, Asian Pacific Islander, and white working people join together we can make the impossible possible. Under her leadership, SEIU members have won major victories to improve the jobs of healthcare, property services, and public sector workers across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Henry’s decision to back the courageous fast-food workers and other service and care workers in the historic “Fight for $15 and a Union” movement has helped 24 million working Americans win wage increases.
In 2010, Mary Kay Henry became the first woman elected to lead SEIU. Since then, Fast Company magazine named her one of the 100 most creative leaders in the economy, Politico magazine named her one of the top 50 visionaries reshaping American politics, and in 2019 the governor of California tapped her to co-chair the state’s Future of Work Commission.
Henry believes that to build an inclusive, sustainable economy we need to empower all working people to join together in Unions for All to negotiate for family-sustaining jobs. Together, SEIU members are using our strength in numbers to fight for access to affordable, quality healthcare for all, a fair immigration process for new Americans and Canadians, and safety and justice for all families, no matter what our color or where we come from.